How the project came about

This research project, which bridges art and science, came into being thanks to a long-standing complicity between an artist and a researcher. Theatre practitioner and teacher at the Ecole National des Ponts ParisTech Caroline Preller, and professor Joelle Aden, a researcher specialising in the links between language science and artistic practice and professor at the Créteil University for Education and Teaching Training, have previously collaborated on many projects across disciplines.

Varela’s paradigm of enaction (Varela, Thomson & Rosch, 1991 & 2016) underpins the project, which draws on A/R/Tography (Irwing & al., 2018) and Jaques Lecoq’s teaching (1997). Here we present a critical and structured description of this innovative module devised to learn English and foster intercultural awareness through drama workshops using masks. Our 13-week module ran for four semesters, with four different groups of students, and is the subject of an ongoing phenomenological study. The results will be regularly presented in this notebook.

Fig. 1: Visual storytelling – Group 4. 2019

 “Our languages in all their complexity and diversity are the epiphenomenon of a vast, dynamic and complex system whose primary purpose is not to transmit information but to understand the world and act together in the world.”


H. Maturana, F Varela (1994: 241)

The beginning

Although Caroline Preller had already been experimenting from time to time with masks in her language modules at the ENPC since 2012, it was in 2015, during the first international convention of the PICNAB network at the University of Brasilia, that the idea of exploring the potential of masks in language education really took off. At the time, Joelle Aden was assisting Dora François (CREN EA2661) in the creation of a university network between Brazil, Portugal and France with the aim of producing innovative international programmes in language education in the field of research and teacher training. Our research corresponds to the third branch of the network called artistic and cultural practices and coordinated by Gloria Magalhaes dos Reis. It asks the following questions: How can artistic, literary and cultural practices contribute to building a plural, fair society? What is the role of memory and imagination in the construction and reconstruction of transcultural identity? 

Back in France, over a two-year period (2016-17), we developed an enactive-performative course specifically adapted to the profile of the student engineers at Ponts, and supported by a paradigm that we were already exploring in other educational contexts (Aden, 2010; 2012; 2017a; 2017b; 2018) (Aden, Eschenauer, 2020).

This course gives us the opportunity to explore language learning through theories of embodiment and using recent research in cognitive neuroscience that makes connections between the arts and cognitive science. But this course is ground-breaking in the sense that we are making a micro-phenomenological study (Petitmengin, 2006) to analyse the practice of mask work in language learning.Our research project and module benefited from a state grant from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) as part of its future investments programme (ANR reference ANR-11-IDFI-022), in conjunction with ENPC funding. The study spans two years: 2017-2019. In 2019 we also started to use it in the context of the Art’Enact Master teacher training programme.


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